Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.
Last week he wrote about the appropriateness of TVs in doctor waiting rooms, this week he talks about how much texting constitutes a addiction.
Q: My daughter is 13 years old, and we have set times during the day that her phone is disabled. It is not available for texting during school hours, and during the week it is set to turn off at her bedtime. My question is about the rest of the time. How much texting is too much? I realize it is the main form of communication for teenagers, but my husband and I find ourselves wondering if she is texting too much. Last night, my husband counted 600 messages back and forth for the day.
-Too much texting?, in Irvine, CA
A: Dear Texting,
First of all, kudos to you for setting up structures that support your daughter in using text messages healthfully. By outlining your expectations (and hers) up front, you have paved the way for discussing any issues that arise. Your “gut feeling” is correct — 600 texts in a day (or 300 if she sent half and received half of what you counted) is on the high end. To put your daughter’s usage in perspective, the latest numbers from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that, on average, teens text at a rate of 50 messages per day. Fifteen percent of teens are considered “heavy texters”, sending 200 messages per day.
My first question about your daughter’s use is whether this amount of texting in a day is typical for her. If it isn’t, then take this opportunity to ask your daughter what is going on in her life—is there something major happening that you aren’t aware of? If her use is typical, then we might be dealing with addictive behavior, which would require a different approach. Problematic use of interactive media such as video games or Internet is treated as a clinical problem by health professionals in China, Korea, and some European countries. The U.S. is somewhat behind in this area, partly because our population seems to be less addicted, and party because we are not clear on how to assess or treat this kind of addiction. So when does heavy use cross over into addiction? If your child is texting that much regularly, is increasing in her texting, is irritable when not texting, and is disrupting social activities, academic performance, or relationships with family and friends to text, you should seek clinical help for her.
If, however, your daughter is a heavy, but not “out of control” texter, you now need to consider whether there’s enough time left for the other critical activities in her day-to-day life—like completing her homework, engaging in physical activity, and sharing family meals—to occur. To answer this question, engage your daughter in an open, non-blaming conversation about cell phone use. You can say that with school starting again, you’re curious about how she thinks it’s going. What role does texting play in her life? Does she feel like she has enough time to do everything she needs to do? In a previous answer, I referred to a video interview on extreme texting where the teens claimed it was not the texting itself they were addicted to, but rather the need to be in constant connection with their friends. It’s possible that she hasn’t thought about how so much texting affects her life. Your questions can help her learn to reflect on the nature of connections with others via text vs. in real life, and make active choices about how she spends her time and what sorts of relationships she wants.
If your daughter seems to think everything is fine, you might wish to express your concern about the 600 texts—not as an accusation, but as a statement of concern. Perhaps use the Pew data cited above – many kids take part in certain behaviors because they think that “everybody’s doing it”, so a reality check often works very well. You can offer to support her by creating a weekly check-in about how things are going with her texting, and offer, rather than threaten, to add external limitations if those would help her restructure her lifestyle. By giving her the excuse that “my parents made me do it”, you allow her to explain to her friends why she is texting less without being criticized for not communicating with them as often as she used to. Ultimately, the goal is for her to take over the responsibility of monitoring her own use of her cell phone. Make that clear to her and offer to support her in that process.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,